Makha Diop is helping introduce people around the world to African rhythms by performing djembe, a traditional African drum, at international and local festivals. Diop was born and raised in Senegal, West Africa. After cultivating an interest and talent for traditional African percussion instruments in his hometown of Goree Island, Diop realized drumming was his passion. He has since performed all over the world, including for many important figures like Nelson Mandela, Carrie Lam and Bill Clinton.
Diop now directs the African Drumming and Dance Connection (ADADC), established in Hong Kong in 2005, which educates and inspires people with African culture, music and dance. Diop’s djembe journey in Asian countries began in 2001 when one of his students invited him to lead djembe workshops in Hong Kong.
TMS sat down with Diop to discuss the trials he faced finding his footing in a foreign city and the process of building a business as an artist.
For those who don’t know, the djembe is a traditional West African drum played with bare hands. Tuned by rope, the goblet drum produces a loud sound, and the sound it makes depends on the position of the drummer’s hands. Djembe is considered a solo instrument meant to be heard above a percussion ensemble.
Its versatility and portability make it a popular instrument for percussion students of all ages, especially younger musicians. Before the 1950s and the decolonization of Western Africa, the djembe was not well-known outside of its original area. But, in 1952, Fodéba Keïta founded Les Ballets Africains, which toured extensively in Europe and brought exposure to these traditional instruments around the world. The market for educational djembe materials has also grown significantly since the early 2000s.
From island to island
Diop’s hometown of Goree Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site just off the coast of Senegal. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. It attracts hordes of tourists for its long, impactful history.
As UNESCO describes it, “Gorée is now a pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora, a foyer for contact between the West and Africa, and a space for exchange and dialogue between cultures through the confrontation of ideals of reconciliation and forgiveness."
Diop lived there 22 years ago.
“Goree is a very famous island with a lot of history behind it and now is this center point where a lot of famous people and artists and musicians can meet because it’s kind of a melting pot," he says.
It was on Goree Island where he met the Hong Kong student who would later convince him to perform in the Asian metropolis. However, once he had relocated to Hong Kong, Diop experienced a bit of culture shock.
“Everything looked a little bit out of place for me because I came straight from Africa, and I never had a picture of anything because I have no clue," says Diop. “The only thing I saw was movie pictures of China and Jackie Chan, you know, kung fu movies. So I was expecting to see exactly back in the days China with those kung fu movies.
“So when I came to Hong Kong it was a completely different world," says Diop. “I was like, ‘This is not what I expected.’ But it was a nice surprise. The only thing was I found it a little bit too overwhelming to me."
Diop eventually found a rhythm in the chaos of the city by seeking out similarities between Senegal and Hong Kong, like taking the ferry to and from Lamma Island, where he eventually set up camp. The community on Hong Kong’s third-largest island is tight-knit, much like Senegal’s Goree.
“I met very good people [on Lamma]," says Diop. “So I have a community that is very small and full of laid-back people. Really, really cool. So it made us very much more comfortable there. I met some really, really good people in Hong Kong as well."
While waited for the drumming scene to pick up, Diop found his feet working as a basketball coach part-time with a friend. He balanced sports and drumming for about a decade before wholly dedicating himself to African performance art.
Getting ADADC off the ground
Diop struggled in the beginning, at one point considering going back home because he was having trouble affording rent and getting by in the city. That is until he met who he refers to as his “Chinese godmother."
“The most shocking part for me was when I met my Chinese godmother. I ended up being adopted by a Chinese mom. I call her mom today, and she calls me son. So things were really hard, as you can imagine. At one point, I had to go back home because I could not afford my rent or anything."
The day Diop was set to turn in his keys to the landlord, he opened the door to find his Chinese mom standing there. She had moved from her former home into the house next door.
“I came out, and I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ She said, ‘You’re my son, and I have to look after you, so I moved in right next to your house next door.'"
Even though she spoke Cantonese and Diop was primarily only speaking French at the time, they still found a way to communicate in their own language.
“When the universe or, if you believe in God, when God wants to put things together, there are ways that he can put people together and make things work," says Diop.
Additionally, the reactions Diop saw from Hong Kongers attending his performances inspired him even more to stay and continue spreading awareness and sharing African culture in the region.
With some help from locals, Diop managed to work out his housing and visa to stay in Hong Kong. He linked up with a local man his Chinese mom introduced him to and started his next business venture teaching students and performing across the region.
But as his business was gaining traction, some challenged him to expand and shift his vision. At first, he didn’t want to compromise.
“Back then, I was a bit naive. I was like, ‘This is my culture,'" says Diop. “But then I started learning what those people were telling me. You have to make it a little bit more international or suitable to people here. You can’t just stick to your full core ideology. You have to be a bit more interactive with them. You have to open up and change the ways that you perform and the way you teach.
“I’m not a business-minded guy," says Diop. “So when people come to me, I don’t want to focus on that thought too much because it is really hard to switch those two minds of being an artist and a businessman."
But, since opening his mind to new possibilities, Diop has introduced countless people to traditional African music and culture, performed all over the world, and expanded his business by offering a variety of classes like corporate team building workshops, drum circles, private lessons for adults and kids, school workshops and more.
By immersing himself in the local culture and spreading appreciation for his own background and culture, Diop is helping bridge the misconceptions between Asia and Africa.
“As you go, you meet very nice people also … You meet a different side of it, and you’re like ‘You know what? It may be hard for me now because of, you feel like discrimination, you feel like this and that.’ But, at the same time, I take it from myself. Like, ‘Makhaa, look, what kind of idea did you have about Hong Kong and China before you came here?’… I only knew about what I saw on TV and media … and I guess, vice versa, it’s the same. And I realized it’s the same, because when I came to Hong Kong and China, I realized that these people don’t know about us."
That point led to Diop making his home in Hong Kong for more than two decades.
“For me, what made me stay is, like I said, is the urge to or the feeling I had that I was meant to be here and to share this thing, my drumming culture," recalls Diop. “I really felt that because I remember when we first played, I’d see people’s reaction and how they come to this one they don’t know, people grab[bed] me … even myself, [they] would grab a hold of my hair, ‘is this real?,’
“So I was like, ‘You know what, there is something to put right here,’ if I can say that that way … I mean we’ve got to know each other. And, if I’m here, why not me?"